A DEATH OF FRESH AIR
During the height of WWII in Germany, a recently orphaned adolescent girl named Liesel is taken in by a poor couple in The Book Thief, now receiving its world premiere production at Steppenwolf. Liesel finds solace in books, and, as a survival mechanism, has taken to stealing them, whether from the mayor’s house or a public book-burning. But as adapted by Heidi Stillman from Markus Zusak’s runaway best-seller novel, this play is not about Liesel.
Certainly Liesel (Rae Gray) is the central character, and it is through her that we meet the denizens of Himmel Street – the majority of whom are non-Nazi German citizens drowning in the tidal wave of the Third Reich, but this play is not about fascism, even as it may challenge viewers to ponder over the “right” thing to do in a morally relative society.
The main characters in this (fictional) town of Molching, just outside of Munich, are: Liesel’s foster parents, Hans Hubermann (Mark Ulrich), the kindly painter, accordionist, and sympathizer to the Jewish plight, and Rosa (Amy J. Carle), the harsher washwoman; Leisel’s neighbor, the rebellious soccer-playing lad Rudy (Clancy McCartney), who seeks a kiss as his reward whenever he helps Liesel accomplish something; and Max (Patrick Andrews), a Jewish man who is sheltered in the Hubermann’s shallow basement, a fugitive from injustice. The presence of these characters offers a fresh perspective on life for those living under Hitler’s reign of terror. The resilience of the human spirit is investigated, as is the will to survive – whether by compassion or complicity – but that, also, is not what this play is about.
The Book Thief is about our relationship to mortality.
At the center of this drama – gently, unhurriedly, thoughtfully, and caringly directed by Hallie Gordon – is the character of Death, aka Him (Francis Guinan), who narrates The Book Thief, which appears to me to be equal parts Pollyanna, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Our Town. Indeed, it is the latter that resonates most; Death has the same task as Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager – an audience guide who breaks the fourth wall to comment on what has happened or is about to happen, and to occasionally set up exposition (although Death never performs as a character in this story). He appears as folksy, caring, humorous, and sympathetic – an outsider who simply does his job even as he dislikes the annihilation and anguish that is visited on humans as a result of war.
Steppenwolf ensemble member Francis Guinan is a treasure of the American stage. While the device of Death as narrator (similarly used in the novel) tends to deflate much of the tension in the story, Mr. Guinan’s empathy for the human condition is tangible; the way that he sensitively cogitates over just the right word to describe his discouragement is magical and reassuring. It is his performance that evidences the The Book Thief’s main theme: you will always be ready for death if you are an upright person. As Death, he steals your soul; as an actor, he steals your heart.
Along with Gordon’s guidance, it is the keen perspicacity of casting director Erica Daniels and the cast who are largely responsible for the heart-tugging experience at show’s end, not Stillman’s adaptation, which follows the book too closely for the novelist’s tale to take a life of its own. Individual scenes, many of them quite short, are always intriguing, and Guinan’s presence is consistently welcome, but the script feels weighed down because it has yet to find a proper balance between the annotating narrator and the scenes he introduces (a similar fate plagued Frank Galati, who followed Doctorow’s novel too closely when adapting the similarly constructed The March for Steppenwolf earlier this year). If the idea is to have the character of Death be a portal between audience and story, it has yet to be fully realized (it will be fascinating to see how this is handled when The Book Thief is transferred to the screen in an adaptation set to be directed by Brian Percival).
Stillman may be at a structural disadvantage, as some of her characters, such as the basement-dwelling Max, are circumstantial more than flesh-and-blood people, but she has nonetheless managed to create a bevy of distinctive characters, all handled with the magnificent technique for which Steppenwolf actors are known. As Liesel, Rae Gray locates the delicate balance between the charismatic tomboy and the frightened, vulnerable caregiver; Clancy McCartney is remarkably confident and endearing as Rudy, the neighbor boy who gets in trouble for emulating black Olympian Jesse Owens; Andy Monson is mesmerizing as Rudy’s friend, the stuttering, bullied, tic-plagued Tommy; Nicole Wiesner plays the mayor’s wife Ilsa with the proper amount of haunted melancholy, but richer scenes are needed to enhance this woman – one who grieves over the death of her son and perhaps sees Liesel as a surrogate child; as it stands, she is more of a device as the woman who lets a young girl steal books from her windowsill. Some characters have been trimmed from the novel, leaving just enough to tell this truly lovely tale. The remaining assortment of Nazis and neighbors are played by Rob Fagin Dennis and William Grimes.
Offering a sense of place and time is the atmospheric sound design and original music by Rick Sims; the three musicians – Nikki Klix (violin), Ian Knox (accordion), and Anthony-Jon LeSage (cello) – are also members of the ensemble, perfectly costumed by Sally Dolembo as if playing at a local café; as such, they reverberate the simple beauty of the story. Lizzie Bracken’s castered scenic design allows the actors to fluidly create differing locales (film and photo projections are by Mike Tutaj, illustrations by Trudy White). J.R. Lederle sets the mood with deep reds, bold blues, and stark greys, yet his lighting design never calls attention to itself.
Under the banner of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, Director Gordon spearheaded this project in collaboration with Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” program. The story – which has Death perplexed over a defiant German family that jeopardizes itself in the face of Nazism – and the leitmotif of decency in the face of brutality, make this a must-see for the target audience: teens. Lecturing on the dangers of bullying in classrooms is one thing, but allowing children to witness brutality and its aftermath through the eyes of a book-loving girl their own age is another thing altogether, and just may be the ticket to a more understanding and tolerant society. Weekday performances are already sold out to schools full of malleable teenagers within, but tickets are still available for weekend performances. Though dramaturgically in need of work, The Book Thief will leave a lump in your throat, and just may instill in you and your children the desire to effect change in your community. How many plays can you say that about?
photos by Michael Brosilow
The Book Thief
scheduled to end on November 11, 2012
for tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit http://steppenwolf.org
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com